Photo by Allison Winn ScotchFive years ago, Allison Winn Scotch set a goal. A working writer for magazines like American Baby and Glamour, she decided she wanted to be a published author. And she's managed to do just that, all while balancing work and the demands of family life in bustling New York City. Her third book, the deliciously down-to-Earth The One That I Want, is Allison's first foray into thriller territory. We caught up with the writer mama to chat working at home in her sweats, why she loves using the word "no," and where she'll be five years from now.
You're latest book, The One That I Want, has a "what-if" premise. Tell us a bit about it.
The One That I Want chronicles the journey of Tilly Farmer, a guidance counselor in a small town, who is married to her high school sweetheart, and who thinks she has a pretty great life. She runs into a former friend who "gifts" her with the ability to see into the future, and soon realizes that her pretty well-put together life is about to totally unravel. Basically, I wanted to take the themes I explored in my last book, Time of My Life, and flip everything on its head, while still delving into the concept of how we – and my characters – can create more fulfilling, fleshed-out lives. So it was this whole concept of, “What happens when you think you have a perfect life, and it totally gets shattered to pieces?” In this day and age, not an entirely uncommon – unfortunately – scenario.
What's your writing process? You've said this book was your hardest to write. Why?
I'm a pants-er, which means I write by the seat of my pants. Basically, I start with the concept and a core set of characters and go from there, aiming to write 1-2k words a day, every day, barring the weekends. Why was this book so difficult to write? I think there were two main reasons. To begin with, I felt a lot of pressure to live up to both readers', as well as my own, expectations after Time of My Life, and for the first few drafts, I think I was a little paralyzed by that pressure. When people are writing to tell you how resonant your book is and how much it means to them, well, a small voice plants itself in your ear that echoes that you simply won't replicate this magic. Don't get me wrong: I am not complaining! I love hearing from readers, and the entire point of writing is to create something that resonates. Only that I couldn't help but wonder if I'd peaked and wouldn't be able to match what I'd already done.
You write frequently about motherhood and marriage. Are you drawing from your own experience? Research?
Yes and no. It's not that these books are based on me or my life, but I do try to tap into an undercurrent of what maybe I've felt in the past or what I sense that my friends or even women my age in general are feeling and experiencing. Tilly, for example, is pretty much the opposite of me, but that didn't mean that I couldn't dig deep into myself and try to envision a life that felt a little trapped. Because while I lead a very different life, sure, at times over the course of my 36-years, could I relate to that? You bet. I could also relate to her need to stay optimistic, to overlook some pretty gaping holes in her life and relationships. I think women are so busy and harried these days that sometimes, it's easier to brush things under the rug rather than address them. The problem with that, of course, is that eventually, you do need to address them, and by then, they've usually spiraled into much bigger issues.
You also write about looking back or revisiting the past. What draws you to those types of stories? Do you think the "what-if" is the element that draws your readership in?
I do love writing about "what ifs," not because I spend my days planted in front of old photo albums but because I think that wistfulness is both normal and universal, again, especially for women right now who have so many options that it's easy to step back and wonder about how life could be different if you'd taken a different road. Adding in the supernatural elements is really just a way for me to raise the stakes, up the plot in the books. Time of My Life is really about a woman who regrets her choices, so why not examine those choices while sending her back in time? The One That I Want is about a woman who hasn't reflected enough on her own happiness or how she's gotten to where she's gotten, so why not give her the unwelcome ability to see into the future and force her to confront things whether she wants to or not?
Writers need to have a thick skin. Do you read the reviews, negative or positive?
Oh boy, do we! The thickest around. I would say that when a book is newly released, yes, I read them all. It feels impossible not to, especially with google alerts these days. And I also like to know how people are reacting -- I write for myself, but I also write for my readers, so if something in the book is a huge miss, I'd want to know about it. Eventually, though, I lose interest and really don't keep track. This is usually when I've moved on to really focusing on my next book anyway. I think your books are sort of like your children: you put them out in the world and worry about them, and then you generally realize that regardless of bumps and bruises, they're going to be okay.
Do you look at writing as a job or a creative outlet?
I'd say it's a blend of both, though I'm leaning toward saying it's a job that fulfills my creative outlet! It would be lovely to think that writers sit around and write at their leisure, but it's simply not true. I have deadlines, I sometimes struggle with a manuscript and expectations, and yes, there are days when it feels like writing is the last thing I want to do. But, on the flip side, I love it. I love that I get to tap into that creative space, that I get to earn a living at this. I'd never, ever, ever say otherwise, only that writing books can be hard -- although it's simultaneously wonderful.
How do you balance working from home with two little ones?
Whenever I get asked about juggling mommyhood and writing, I always immediately say that I have a great babysitter, which is true. I don’t want anyone to think that I’m writing these books and working on my magazine articles during the wee nap times of my children because that wouldn’t be a fair impression. But that said, I treat my job like any other working mom would: namely, while my kids are at school or in their after-school activities, I sit in my home office -- I'm very fortunate to have one living in New York City -- and I work; and then, come six o’clock, when it’s time for their dinner, I shut down the manuscript and hang out with them. It’s actually surprisingly easier for me than I think people think it is, and I’m so fortunate to have this flexibility. I don’t know—I also don’t have the expectation of perfection around here. We’re sort of an easy-going, figuratively messy bunch, and we go with the flow a lot of times. I think that motherhood asks a lot of you, and you give it your best -- and then you’re okay with that. I also believe in saying “no.” I say “no” to a lot of things when I just don’t have anything else to give.
As far as my daily schedule, my day starts by making breakfast for my kids, dropping my son at school and then heading home to work -- or occasionally screwing around! I do usually see daughter at lunch, if she's not hanging out with her preschool friends for lunch, and take a break from work to run errands and squeeze in a workout. And then, it's back to the computer before I shut down to walk the dog, and at 6:00 p.m., hang out with the kids for their dinner. As far as my PJs, no, more like my workout clothes. I have a closet full of decent clothes, but seriously, it takes a mountain for me to put on anything other than my yoga pants! That is the beauty of being a writer!
A movie version of Time Of Your Life is in the works. How involved are you? Who would you like to see play Jillian? The men she's involved with?
I would say I’m involved in the sense of the producers have been very kind in continuing to be interested in my opinions and feedback. When we were first working out the deal, they sat down with me and talked about how the book resonated with them, the overall themes, and even some specific casting, and more recently, they asked for my opinion on an early draft of the screenplay. One reason that I was really excited to sell it to them is that I completely trusted that they “got” the book in a way that you’d hope for. Throughout the process, they’ve done some temperature check-ins with me to gauge my thoughts on various aspects of the adaptation, and I recognize that this is a luxury. Most writers, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t consulted in this manner, and I feel fortunate to have been.
As far as the casting, oh, do I have ideas! Again, the producers and I came up with a list of about seven or eight fabulous actresses, from Anne Hathaway to Reese Witherspoon to Jennifer Garner, and truly, I would be floored if any of them were to be attached. That said, I have a personal fondness for Keri Russell, and think she'd be both perfect and amazing. For the guys, it's partially contingent on who is cast as Jillian, but I've long thought that Michael Vartan, Patrick Wilson, Mark Ruffalo or James Marsden would be perfect for Henry, and that Scott Speedman, Bradley Cooper or Marsden again would be great at Jackson. But again, I'm not a casting director, so I'm sure whomever they cast will be awesome.
You use your maiden and married name on your books, no hyphen. What was the deciding factor on that?
Well, to be honest, that's just how I changed my name when I got married! So there wasn't a lot of thought in that. But it's interesting, over the years, part of me has wished that professionally, I stuck with my maiden name. This is not a slight on my marriage at all. At all. Only that as a mom and wife, I feel like I give so much of myself that a sliver of me wishes that I still had something to call my own. I hope that doesn't sound strange. I adore my family and am grateful to them, but sometimes I think it would be nice to just have that one thing -- my professional name -- to myself. I know a lot of women feel this way, and you never know what the right thing is to do for yourself until you try it out.
What advice would you give moms looking to write or for a creative outlet?
Well, I'd always been a writer, even as a kid, and was fortunate enough to be making a decent living as a freelance magazine writer when I wanted to flex a different muscle and try my hand at fiction. But goal-setting was definitely a huge factor for me. Hitting the bestseller list, actually, was never a goal, though getting my novel published certainly was. So to that point, I think establishing an end-point is a great thing: it doesn't have to be the highest bar -- maybe it's that you write 500 words each night rather than screw around on Facebook or yes, maybe it's finishing a manuscript, and then, from there, sending it into agents. I set similar goals for myself and kept building on them. Eventually, you're able to set the bar pretty high.
I know The One That I Want just hit stands, but what can we expect next from you?
I’m almost done with the initial draft of my fourth book, The Memory of Us, which focuses on a woman who survives a plane crash but loses her memory in the process, and is forced to tape together the pieces of her life by the stories that other people relay back to her. I think it’s a nice companion to Time of My Life and The One That I Want -- somewhere in between the two of them in terms of voice and gravity, and hope that readers agree when it comes out in June 2011!
Tilly has the gift of clarity. Are you where you expected to be five years ago? Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Oh gosh, great question! Well, I'd very much like to leave New York and move to California or somewhere that's a little more laid-back, so ideally, that would be part of the five-year plan. I'd also hope that I'm still challenging myself as a writer -- that might include screenplays or trying something totally different with my novels or...who knows? See, that's the thing. I'm not sure that I'd want to know what the future holds -- what's the fun in that when you already know what's down the pipeline?
Want to hear more from Allison? Catch her on her writer blog, Ask Allison, or check out The One That I Want, in bookstores now.